Nobody knows better than New England Baptists how ministry is changing in America. And that shouldn't surprise us. They've been at least a generation ahead of the rest of us for a couple hundred years. They practically invented evangelicalism in the 1740s. That was nearly a century before my home state (Arkansas) was admitted to the union. And while many of us west of the Mississippi fear the creeping influence of secularism, our New Englander brethren minister in the least religious states in America.
Fortunately, they are also a generation ahead of us in recovering the critical ministry value of faithfulness.
Earlier this year, I spent a long weekend with a group of Baptists from Vermont and New Hampshire. Before an evening session, one pastor reflected on the fact that the Bible only records three years of Jesus' life and ministry. If Jesus died at 33, then we only know about ten percent of his life. Or, as this pastor put it, that means Jesus' life and ministry was "ninety percent obscurity."
That's a feeling with which he and his fellow shepherds could relate. The Baptists were once the leading spiritual lights in New England. Following the Great Awakening, Baptist churches grew in massive numbers. Within about sixty years of the revival, Baptists grew from just dozens to nearly twenty-five thousand in New England. Those swelling ranks had influence beyond the church world. They carried with them considerable cultural clout. The Baptists did a lot to see the first amendment added to our constitution, for example, to ensure religious liberty for dissenters like themselves. They were a thriving, culturally relevant force.
But now the region's churches are shrinking. Several of the pastors present that weekend hold services in church buildings erected in the 1740s which, on the one hand, testifies to the longevity of the movement. On the other, it speaks to a certain stagnation, a leveling off of 200 years of growth. Many pastors are bi-vocational, because their membership can't support a full-time minister. And instead of being a shaping influence in the broader culture, the churches are fighting to prove their relevance in their profoundly secular environment. They labor in obscurity.
At the risk of sounding like a forecaster of doom, their story is our national story. It's how we often tell our story, anyway. There were days when people went to church—most people, maybe. When the church was a cultural force for change for the better. Times have changed and are changing. If we want to know what awaits us in a generation, we need only look at New England.
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